Predators face road-heavy finish before playoffs

By Teresa M. Walker

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 9 2012 1:40 p.m. MST

Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, of Finland, dives to make a stop against the Colorado Avalanche in the third period of an NHL hockey game on Thursday, March 8, 2012, in Nashville, Tenn.

Mark Humphrey, Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Predators typically experience their own version of March Madness, having to scramble for their postseason lives with plenty of home games in the month to help them grab points.

Not this year.

The Predators sit comfortably in fifth in the Western Conference. And this year the question isn't whether they'll get into the playoffs, but can they push Detroit and St. Louis for the top the Central Division or at least grab home-ice advantage by finishing fourth.

Any push for positioning will come on the road. The Predators wrap up a three-game home stand Saturday night against Detroit, then hit the road while the NCAA tournament occupies their arena. Nine of their last 15 games are on the road.

Nashville coach Barry Trotz said Friday the home-ice advantage has lessened in recent years and he remembers not winning a single home game in the Western Conference semifinals last year against Vancouver.

"I just want to make sure that we're winning as many games as we can," Trotz said. "I want to finish as high as we can and make sure we're playing at a high level going into the playoffs because I think when you back in and you're not playing at a high level, all of a sudden it gets ramped up to a level that you haven't seen for a long, long time."

Chasing down St. Louis, which stood atop the West with 93 points Friday, for first in the Central Division seems unlikely with the Predators at 85 points and only one game left against the Blues. The Predators trail Detroit by four points, though the Red Wings hosted Los Angeles on Friday night.

Nashville will visit Detroit on March 30, and the Red Wings are up 3-1 edge in their series so far this season in the only Central Division team the Predators don't have a winning record against. Goaltender Pekka Rinne said that makes the final six home games more crucial with Saturday night's game with Detroit the most important game of the year.

"It would be nice to get the 'W' and go on the road after that," Rinne said.

Then Nashville hits the road starting with a trip to Phoenix on Monday starting a four-game trip away from home. That coincides with the NCAA tournament visiting Bridgestone Arena.

Defenseman Ryan Suter noted they started the season with a road-heavy schedule and said the finishing stretch is not terrible with a weeklong trip followed by a game at home before another weeklong trip.

"It's part of the business," Suter said. "You have to be able to play in all atmospheres. In order to be successful down the road, you have to know how to play on the road and at home. So we always seem to rise to the challenge on the road and expect this to be no different on this road trip."

The Predators are 17-13-2 away from home with some of those losses early in the season with a roster that was among the NHL's youngest at the time. They are 22-8-5 at home overall and 18-3-2 in their last 23 home games, which is why fans would love to see the Predators start their seventh postseason in eight seasons on their own ice.

March has been a strong month for Nashville recently with the Predators going 22-8-3 since 2010.

Suter said the Predators have bigger concerns right now than what seed they finish with for the postseason. He wants to see them become more consistent.

"We've been so inconsistent the last little while. We're good one night, we're bad the next. I think for us our biggest concern now is playing the way we're capable of playing," Suter said.

The Predators have managed to get points in seven of their last nine game and have won two of the last three. Trotz has been trying to work in trade deadline acquisitions center Paul Gaustad along with forward Andrei Kostitsyn. He also has had a fairly healthy roster.

The power play has slipped to second in the NHL. Rinne leads the NHL with a franchise-record 37 wins, but the Predators have a bad habit of giving up goals quickly in games or the start of periods. Jamie McGinn scored 74 seconds into Thursday night's 4-2 win over Colorado.

Trotz hasn't been able to forget how they allowed Pavel Datsyuk to score with 5 seconds left in regulation Feb. 17 as the Red Wings pulled out a 2-1 win in Detroit.

"We recognize that we learned a tough lesson in Detroit where we should've at least come out with a point," Trotz said. "We came out with zero. You look at the way the standings are, they're the next one ahead of us so that one point or maybe those two points if we got two and they got one, that could've really closed the gap there. We have a chance to close the gap a little bit more (Saturday) night."

Notes: Alexander Radulov, who remains under contract with Nashville, has finished his season with his KHL team. The possibility of him rejoining Nashville to become a restricted free agent has been a topic of hot discussion. Trotz said he will prepare for Radulov's return only when he sees the white of the player's eyes. Until then, Trotz said it's more of a what if, winning the lottery situation.

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